Delivering Our Message: How Advocates Impact Message Reception
Animal advocates often discuss important details about outreach efforts, such as using the word “vegetarian” or “vegan,” framing our message as one for human health or for animal wellbeing, or asking for welfare versus rights for nonhuman animals. However, we spend less time deeply investigating if the way we present our arguments actually impacts the people we want to reach. We often construct our messages in a way that speaks to us personally, with the hope that it will speak to others as well. But as Faunalytics often reminds us, “we are not our target audience.”
Animal advocates are not just ideologically similar to each other, but we are a demographically similar community as well. Past research finds our community is disproportionately white, female, highly educated, and middle class or affluent. This means that not only are we not our target audience ideologically, but we are not our target audience demographically. This lack of diversity is negatively impacting the way we convey our message.
The movement’s lack of diversity seems to be creating a situation in which we are not adequately connecting with all of our target audiences. This is highlighted by Faunalytics’ study, Readability of Vegan Outreach Literature, which finds that while the average person in the U.S. reads at a 9th or 10th grade level, the most widely used vegan outreach literature is written at or above an 11th grade reading level. Our community’s privilege in educational attainment has translated into the production of advocacy materials that much of our target audience may find difficult to understand.
This is an issue not just in terms of the literature we produce or the way we choose to market our materials, but also in terms of our outreach. A study by Rachael N. Einwohner highlights the complex way that advocates’ characteristics can impact how our message is interpreted during outreach and protest. Einwohner examined the outcome of two outreach efforts of a single animal advocacy group—one campaign was focused on hunting, the other on the circus. The gender and class background (female, middle-class) of the activists became a justification for the hunters to dismiss the activists’ claims while it had little impact on communicating with circus patrons.
Animal activists are more likely to be female and recreational hunters are more likely to be male. The hunters interviewed in Einwohner’s study attributed negative traits that they associated with femininity to the activists (e.g. overly emotional), enabling them to label their arguments as illogical. They also used the class difference to identify advocates as inexperienced with hunting, and therefore uninformed in their claims. Hunters are more likely to be working class than animal advocates and class is a part of their collective identity. Because of the role that class plays in hunters’ identity, it became a point of notable difference between them and animal advocates. In interviews with Einwohner, hunters identified their class status as being distinctly different from that of the activists, describing themselves as people who would “rather be in the woods,” comparing that to the activists who were “office workers.” These visible gender and class differences became the basis on which hunters dismissed and rejected the claims of the advocates.
Conversely, the characteristics of activists had negligible effects on how circus patrons negotiated the messages they were receiving. To the degree that they had an impact, positive aspects associated with femininity (e.g. kindness and compassion) were attributed to the activists. Even the circus patrons interviewed who did not like the animal advocates or their message did not dismiss the animal rights claims off-hand; when they attended the circus they actively looked for the signs of abuse on the animals that the advocates told them about. Unlike the hunters who could visibly identify differences between themselves and the activists based on demographic features, the circus patrons were more diverse as a group and many were like the activists in gender, age, class and race/ ethnicity so, these did not become salient factors that encouraged the patrons to disassociate from their message.
The intricacies of how activists’ characteristics will impact outreach efforts in various settings is still not clear. What we do know is that it has created a situation in which we have produced materials that don’t work well for everyone and the ability for our message to reach its target audience varies along with the topic of outreach, the advocates delivering the message, and the target audience of that message.
Our message should be open to everyone, but currently we are only recruiting people just like ourselves. This is a problem if we are to grow as a social justice movement and as an ideology. In my past work I have discussed this issue as a problem of theory and encouraged a more complete definition of oppression and liberation, one that includes not just nonhuman animals but all oppressed groups. The findings of the Faunalytics’ readability study and Einwohner’s analysis of outreach efforts point out that we need a restructuring on a much more basic and pragmatic level as well. We need to find out why so many groups of people feel excluded from our movement or can’t relate to our message and shape more inclusive messages and outreach strategies.
Understanding the way that message reception has been impacted by how we deliver our message (and who is delivering it) is a necessary step in better understanding how to improve our advocacy and create a movement that is more relevant and relatable to those people who are most likely to shift their attitudes and behaviors. While the way around these challenges is not clear, it is imperative that we begin to find ways to deal with it and begin to think more concretely about who we are packaging our messages for and how we are packaging them.
Carol L. Glasser is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Her research addresses social movements, human-animal studies, applied sociology, and gender. She is also a cofounder and organizer with Progress for Science, a campaign to end experimentation on nonhuman primates.